Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The HeLa Cell Line and The Lesson of Henrietta Lacks

Stained HeLa Cells
Stained HeLa Cells ; Credit: GerryShaw

With the recent news about the descendants of Henrietta Lacks, and their victory in gaining some control over the genetic information of their dead ancestor (and ultimately themselves), it seemed like a good time to finally write a bit about the HeLa line, the controversy, and the woman whose sad end probably saved countless lives.

Henrietta and David Lacks
Henrietta and David Lacks

In 1951, when Henrietta Lacks was treated for cervical cancer at John Hopkins Hospital, patient consent was neither mandatory or commonplace. In some ways then her story is not all that surprising. The doctors treating her took tissue samples without her knowledge. This cancerous tissue would go on to become the first immortal cell line and ultimately one of the most important in biomedical research.

 Lacks eventually died after the cancer spread throughout her body, but the tissue taken from her birthed the HeLa cell line that lives on to this day. Scientists have literally cultured millions of tons of these cells for everything from cancer research to developing the polio vaccine.

The story of the HeLa cell line is intriguing not just because Lacks was an unsung hero but it brings to mind questions of ethics, property, privacy and race. The fact is the HeLa line has not just led to advances in modern medicine but also it's made countless millions in profit over the many years of use. Whether this was intentional or not is a moot point for many members of the current Lacks family whom by no means are wealthy people.

Upon finding out about the HeLa cells the Lacks family was understandably confused and upset, given the fact that Henrietta and her family had not consented to this. Years after her death members of the family were screened by scientists under false pretense and then in the 1980s had medical records published, again without permission.

While their story is not unique, it is compelling in it's scope. It's also a striking example of why current questions of tissue ownership and genetic privacy will need to be answered conclusively. Public perception is paramount, and it doesn't matter how much good you do in the world since people tend to just remember the bad.

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